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Reviewing Astros Trades, 2014-2018, Part VIII. The Greatest Trade of All Time.

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Yeah, Verlander. And I’ll prove it.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction

This is part eight of a series analyzing Astros trades from 2014-2018. For a review of the methodology and caveats go to Part I here.

This is a review of how the trades turned out, understanding that at the time the trades were made the teams involved used the best information available to maximize the chances of an advantageous transaction. But all trades are based on probabilities, and like any form of gambling, the actual outcomes may not be those desired. So this is not intended as a criticism of the trades at the time they happened, but just a review of how lady luck eventually blessed each trade in the end.

The Trade

August 31, 2017, 11:59:59 PM

Breakdown:

In the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the waiver trading deadline, OF Daz Cameron, P Franklin Perez and C Jake Rogers were sent to the Tigers for P Justin Verlander and PTBNL Juan Ramirez. The Tigers agreed to pay $8 million/year of the remaining two years of Verlander’s $28 million/year salary.

At the time of the trade only Franklin Perez was considered a Top 100 prospect, although all three were highly prized by the Astros organization.

What the Tigers got:

With his overall athleticism Daz Cameron in high school was once considered a possible first pick overall. He was drafted by the Astros in the first round of the 2015 supplemental draft which came to the Astros as part of the trade that brought Jake Marisnick and Collin Moran from Miami for Jarred Cosart and Enrique Hernandez. At age 21 Cameron tasted AAA last year, and had an .837 OPS in AA. His ETA according to Fangraphs is 2020, and is the 107th prospect in MLB. His future value rating is 50. By comparison, that is the score of Ramon Laureano, and Kyle Tucker has a score of 60. As I am relying heavily on our own Spencer Morris’ analysis of these prospects, the biggest question with Cameron is how well he will handle big league pitching. He should become a fourth outfielder, and possibly a starter if his bat develops sufficiently.

It should be noted that Cameron has been the star of this Spring’s Tigers team, sporting a 1.168 OPS.

Jake Rogers was probably the top rated catcher in the Astros system when he was traded. Like Cameron, he is a a bona fide defensive player, the question is, will his bat develop sufficiently for him to be major force at the big league level. Rogers figures to reach the majors in 2020 per Fangraphs, with a future value score of 45. At age 23 he spent 2018 in AA with a .717 OPS but with good power.

The headliner of the trade for the Tigers was Franklin Perez, who was a fringe Top 100 prospect at age 19 when he was traded, but remains at that level now. His lack of progress has been due to injuries since the trade. He only pitched 19 innings in 2018, but for now this is seen only as a setback for his arrival time, not his ceiling, which is considered as a MOR starter. Fangraphs rates him as the Tigers’ 5th best prospect and 114th overall with a 50 future value score and ETA of 2021.

In summary, the Tigers got an athletic, toolsy, possible starting outfielder, possible starting catcher, and a likely mid-rotation pitcher for a 34 year-old has-been pitcher with a nearly 4.00 ERA who hadn’t been to an All Star game in four years. The pitcher they unloaded cost them $28 million a year, and with a full rebuild underway, would not have helped the team win any meaningful games anyway. A great trade for the Tigers.

Verlander:

One of the greatest hitting teams in the entire history of Major League baseball, the 2017 Astros were 11-17 in the depressing and tragic month of August prior to the arrival of Verlander. They were 21-8 after Verlander’s arrival. He won all five regular season games he started for the Astros in 2017 with a 1.07 ERA.

Verlander was the winning pitcher in two games of the 2017 ALDS against Boston, and the winner of two games in the ALCS against the Yankees. His complete game, game two, 2-1 victory with 13 strikeouts was the greatest playoff game ever pitched in an Astros uniform, and many a fine pitcher has worn that uniform in the playoffs. He was awarded MVP of the ALCS.

No one else would have so chopped up and spit out that potent Yankees lineup. It is not too much to say that without Justin Verlander the Astros would not have won the ALCS, nor even competed in the World Series. Just imagine Mike Fiers facing Aaron Judge and the rest of the Yankees lineup.

He did not win any World Series games, but he pitched well, and kept the atrocious bullpen off the mound. He kept the team close in game two, a game the Astros eventually won in a heroic extra inning comeback, the second greatest baseball game ever played.

And leadership too.

In 2018 Verlander got back to the All Star game and was second in Cy Young voting, an award he arguably should have won. His ERA was 2.52, fourth in the league, and second best of his career. He led the league in strikeouts with 290, the highest in his career. He also led the league with career bests in WHIP and SO/walk.

Fangraphs awarded Verlander 6.8 Wins Above Replacement in 2018, and when you add 2017 production to the estimated 5 wins he is projected for in 2019, he will eventually likely give the Astros about 13.5 wins in just over two years. Of course that doesn’t include playoff production, each game of which has extremely magnified importance.

Grade A+++

This was a good trade for the Tigers under the circumstances, but it is beyond doubt one of the best trades in all history from the perspective of the Astros. Here’s why.

  1. Any trade that wins a championship is a great trade. It doesn’t matter if the Astros traded young Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, and thrown in Cy Young as the player to be named later, it is 100% certain that the Astros would not have won the World Series without Justin Verlander. That’s what you play for, and if you’re a team like the Astros the chance for that ring comes very rarely. And yet, even when a team takes the chance and pulls the trigger on a trade like this, it seldom works. This time it did. Without Verlander they would have almost certainly lost to the Yankees in the ALCS in five games.
  2. Wins now are worth more than wins later. Especially if they are wins that advance a championship drive. The players the Astros surrendered may produce 13 wins for the Tigers someday, probably more, but maybe less. But when a team accepts prospects for a proven player they take risk, and with risk should come greater eventual reward. Considering the unexpected resurgence in Verlander’s performance on the Astros, the Tigers gave up more than they expected. They probably at least want their $8 million a year back.
  3. Three players worth 2 wins each does not equal one player worth six wins. It is relatively easy to find and or replace a 2 WAR player. There were 45 pitchers with WAR between 1.8 and 2.8 last year. There were six with WAR greater than 6. Three 2018 Gio Gonzalezes does not equal one Justin Verlander. Give me Verlander and find two other just guys.

Why This is the Greatest Trade of All Time

One could find dozens of trades that yielded more wins than this one will. In the end, by that criterion, the Astros may actually end up the net loser.

But this trade was not about winning regular season games. They had the division easily wrapped up. It was about winning playoff games, and winning a championship, the first in the team’s history. If your team loses the last game of the season, the other ones don’t really matter.

This was the greatest trade in history because never before did one trade alone make such a quick, total and decisive difference between a team not winning a championship and winning it. For no other trade could it be said more definitively that without the player added the team would not have won the championship, and with him it did.

In a seven game ALCS, in which the losing team actually scored more runs, the Series MVP had a Win Probability Added of an astronomical .90. No conceivable replacement for Verlander could have come close to matching his performance, and without it the team never sniffs the World Series.

A few trades are close contenders.

1. The 2000 trade of Curt Shilling to the Diamondbacks, but that took a year to yield the trophy

2. The 2016 trade of Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, but when Aroldis was called on to close out game seven he failed at the most decisive moment in the very thing he was acquired to do. The Cubs won that game despite their rented closer. The Cubs would have won the NLDS, the NLCS and the World Series without Chapman, the only decisive contribution he made being the Game 5 save in the World Series. His .23 WPA in the Series does not compare in importance to what Verlander did to get the Astros into the Series.

Anyway, Verlander ate up over 34 playoff innings in 2017. Could you imagine what the score of those games would have been if the Astros’ playoff bullpen had to replace those?

3. The 1998 trade of Pedro Martinez to the Red Sox was a steal, but it took six years for Martinez to put the Sox over the top.

4. I don’t count the Yankees purchase of Babe Ruth as a trade, but I was surprised to learn that it took three years for Ruth to yield a World Series victory for the Yankees, that he only won four total with the Bombers, and actually won three titles with the Red Sox.

This one trade is the closest challenger for Greatest Trade of All Time.

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson, after a slightly down year, was traded by the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Milt Pappas. Robinson had his greatest season, winning the Triple Crown, MVP, and hitting 1.047 OPS with 49 home runs. He produced 7.7 bWAR. We’ll round that up to eight.

The Orioles were 97-63 that year, compared to a slightly over-achieving 94-68 the previous year. They finished third without Robinson, and finished first in the AL in 1966 with him, with the help of Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, and rookie Jim Palmer. They beat out an illustrious Minnesota Twins team that included Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Kaat, Jim Perry, and Mudcat Grant. There were no play-offs then.

The Orioles finished nine games ahead of the Twins, and given that Robinson created eight wins by this very approximate measure called WAR, it’s too close to call whether or not the Orioles would have won the AL pennant without Robinson. Nor can you quantify the effect a player of Robinson’s energy, enthusiasm and skill would have on the performances of the other players on the team, but by all accounts it was immense. Yet clearly Justin Verlander had that effect on his new team as well.

I should mention that if the Orioles had kept Pappas he would have added 2.7 bWAR.

The Orioles beat the LA Dodgers 4-0 in the World Series, taking down Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Robinson was MVP with an OPS of 1.232 and two home runs, one of which won game four, 1-0. His WPA was .27. (For comparison George Springer’s WPA in the 2017 World Series was 1.04)

The Orioles outscored the punchless Dodgers 13-2, so it seems that even if it had taken more games, the Orioles still would have beaten the Dodgers without Frank Robinson. But again, how does the absence of the team leader, the man you know brought you there, effect everyone else’s performance?

Here’s a few scenes from this World Series

It’s a really hard call to say whether or not the 66 Orioles would have won the World Series without Frank Robinson. My gut says no, but the numbers are a little more fuzzy.

Without Verlander the 2017 Astros do not win the ALCS or the WS, that is FOR SURE.

So, by my definition that the greatest trade is the one that you can’t win the World Series without, I say the Verlander trade still wins the title Greatest Trade of All Time.

Note: If anyone knows a more decisive trade, explain in the comments. And yes, I know Frank Robinson was also instrumental in the Orioles 1971 World Series as well, with the help of four 20 game winners. Maybe Verlander will bring the Stros a second World Series too!